So this week I finally took the chance to catch up on the serial The Last Airbender: The Legend of Korra, which is the sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender and airs on Nickelodeon on Saturday mornings. Originally intended as a mini-series, even before it aired the channel upgraded its status based on just what they’d seen of it, and there’s no question why- it’s probably one of the best animated shows North Americans have ever produced.
The original Avatar: The Last Airbender, was an impressive show, but took a little while to find its footing and was perhaps a little too young-oriented for its own good at first. It wanted to be a show for all ages, but because of the channel I personally found the early episodes hard to watch and a bit too kiddy-oriented for my tastes. I strongly suspect this was the result of Nickelodeon suits screaming “make it funnier” behind the scenes, while the production team was just trying to make a balanced adventure series. My evidence of that is that as soon as the show got popular (and the producers had more power), it slowed down on the humor and became more steady and balanced as it went.(Which made it even more popular.)
The Legend of Korra is a completely different beast (if you’ll pardon the pun), if for no reason than because the producers were more experienced the second time around and they also had more say in things. As a result, they have produced something that is both unique and fascinating on so many levels that I almost don’t know where to begin to describe it. So first, for those who many not know what I’m talking about, let’s take a look at the preview trailer:
Want to know something scary? That trailer doesn’t even do justice to how visually beautiful and well animated the show is. It’s like watching a weekly movie, and one done by experienced hands at an A-List studio who know exactly what they’re doing and what they want to achieve. The life this brings to the characters and the setting is amazing, and when the action kicks it, it becomes pure poetry.
And action there is! But before I go on, I should probably explain the plot.
The story is fairly simple- Korra lives in a fantasy world where people called Benders have the ability to control and shape elements telekinetically. If you’re a Bender and you’re attuned to Water, you can make water fly around and do tricks, the same with Earth, Air and Fire. They can’t create the element, but they can shape what’s there, and there are sub-specialties under the main categories, like Metal-Bending and Blood-Bending.
Each generation, there is a single Bender born called the Avatar, who can control all the different elements, not just a single one like most Benders. The original series was about an Avatar named Ang, who was the last of the Airbenders (duh!) and who helped bring peace to the setting and ended a hundred-year long war.
At the start of this series, Ang has already passed away, and a new Avatar has been born to the Water Tribe named Korra. She’s good with water, but her command of the other elements is spotty at best, and her particular weakness is Airbending, so as a teen she goes to live with Tenzin, Ang’s son, in Republic City. (A city founded by Ang, which is now a roaring metropolis.) Shortly after her arrival, she hooks up with a team of sport-benders called the Fire Ferrets, and ends up joining their team. She also runs afoul of the Equalists, and their leader Amon, who claim to be working to promote rights for non-Benders (most of the population) who live under Bender rule.
And, it’s these last two points that make this show both unique and surprisingly deep at times for what is technically a “kids show”.
Half of the show is a “sports drama”, as Korra becomes involved with the Pro-Bending League and bonds with her teammates Mokko and Bolin. The sport itself is surprisingly well thought-out and presented in a way which is both dramatic and easy to follow for the audience. The rules to the sport are almost intuitive, so even those who missed the episode where it’s explained can understand it. Also, watching the teenaged Korra learn and develop through sport is fun and a real inspiration for getting youth involved in sports and physical activity. I wish we had more sports shows for kids like this.
It’s caught on to the point where people are actually trying to create real-life versions as well:
The other half of the show, the Equalists, shines just as brightly. They could have been simple bad-guys, but instead they’re presented as real people who live under the yoke of Bender oppression and believe in their fight for freedom. This is surprisingly heavy for a youth-oriented show, and the producers don’t shy away for what this means and the implications involved. Is Korra really working for the good of all people? Or is she the “savior” of an overclass who dominate those who can’t bend?
Fan Made Equalist Video:
The other nice thing is that their leader, the masked and mysterious Amon, is also portrayed as both extremely smart and capable. His plans almost always work, and all the positive thinking and determination of Korra and her allies mean almost nothing against his intelligence and foresight. She’s not even in his league, and the show makes that clear from the start. There will be a long journey before Korra could even hope to face Amon, and Republic City likely doesn’t have that much time left.
Which brings me to the other shining jewel of the show- the setting!
Where the original show existed in a sort of low-tech steampunk Victorian setting, Korra’s setting is an evolved version of that which bears a striking resemblance to the Roaring Twenties. The city is alive with culture and style to the point where you almost believe its a real place, and they draw heavily on that period to give it authenticity. In fact, I would argue that Republic City is basically an idealized Shanghai of the 20’s and early 30’s during its glory period, with Bending thrown into the mix.
Even the “previously on” segment that catches the audience up at the start of each episode is presented as an old black and white newsreel, with an old-style announcer’s rapid play-by-play patter of the events.
The characters themselves are all well thought-out, nuanced, and generally quite likable. Korra herself is a seat-of-the pants headstrong country girl in the big city, and unique in American TV in many ways, for example, from her “date” with Bolin:
How many other shows would let their heroine do that?
The drama in the show isn’t especially deep, but it’s not meant to be, the show is a coming of age show mixed with an action show, and it plays both of those cards quite well. The mix of humor and drama is almost pitch-perfect, and it really lets all the characters have their moments and show their humanity, so that you really feel for them when the bad stuff goes down.
Overall, I give The Legend of Korra an A+, and highly recommend watching it if you get the chance. It really is a premium show, and deserves the accolades it gets.